Philadelphia Orchestra's China ties portend new era

Playing their parts: Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Dimitri Levin (right) and a member of the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra during a joint rehearsal.
Playing their parts: Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Dimitri Levin (right) and a member of the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra during a joint rehearsal. (JAN REGAN /Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: June 09, 2014

The Philadelphia Orchestra is not what it used to be. And that's excellent news.

The faces haven't changed much but the touring demeanor has, from that of the ensemble that walked on water during European summer festivals past to the 2014 version that does whatever it must to manage the wide-reaching, 2 1/2-week tour of Asia that ended Thursday in Taipei, Taiwan.

The orchestra's leadership has been rewriting the rules, negotiating China dates themselves in ways that cultivate new sponsors and could net an estimated $1 million-plus.

There are hidden costs, including the twists and turns of Chinese business dealings, and the sometimes-primitive circumstances under which the musicians must perform, with extra outreach activities making for some extremely long days. One violinist fainted in a hotel elevator from travel fatigue. Some older players never got their body clocks on Asia time. And yet - no complaints.

"They're with the program. And they're part of the program," said Ambassador Nicholas Platt, who has been active in U.S.-China relations since 1973 and is a key part of the Philadelphia project. "I'm not saying that everything is hunky-dory, but we're going to build on this . . . and see where it leads."

"The microcosm of this whole experiment in China was one day we had in Shenzhen," said Ryan Fleur, executive vice president of orchestral advancement. "We rehearsed the regular program in the morning, had a read-through of a new Chinese piece with a local orchestra in the afternoon, and then played a concert at night."

Often, both sides delivered more than expected.

The Shenzhen reading session for a lavishly scored, locally composed cantata titled Ode to Humanity called for 15 Philadelphia musicians to play with the local orchestra but delivered 22. In Macau, the host/sponsor resort hotel the Venetian installed a new cutting-edge sound system that allowed a level of music-making not previously possible in a theater built for Cirque de Soleil. The Shanghai Grand Theater relationship led to a webcast though one of China's major media companies.

Three years of Chinese-style negotiations have accustomed the Philadelphia Orchestra to new levels of flexibility in an industry that generally plans three years in advance. Of course, basic tour concerts are settled before anybody flies 100 players halfway around the world. But the Ode to Humanity reading, for example, wasn't a certainty until the night before.

Audiences are evolving. In phone-addicted Beijing, picture-takers are admonished with ushers' (often-ignored) red laser beams. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin says he loves the raw energy of Chinese audiences. But he seems to thrive on most forms of adversity.

Other American orchestras, especially the New York Philharmonic, are cultivating relationships with China, but nobody but Philadelphia seems to have the stomach for creating a broader base.

"Orchestras like . . . audiences that are knowledgeable and predictable. What makes China so interesting now is its unpredictability and rapid changeability. The orchestra is getting on that train and moving with it," Platt said. "Major companies, universities, museums, banks are behaving the same way. . . . Anybody who doesn't have China in their business plan for the 21st century is [considered] out of their mind. But they don't know where it's going. They're taking a calculated risk."

Though the linchpin of these visits is a five-year commitment to Beijing's prestigious National Centre for the Performing Arts (further sweetened this year by tour-ending stops in Tokyo and Taipei), Platt has been pushing the orchestra to get in on the ground floor with emerging cities.

This year, that meant glittering, futuristic Shenzhen, with its architecturally mind-blowing arts center, and the rambunctious, rising-from-provincial-grime Changsha, where new five-star hotels needed to be briefed on why 100 musicians from Philadelphia gather onstage with curvy wooden boxes and metal horns.

The Changsha performance of the multimedia piece Nu Shu: The Secret songs of Women by local-boy-made-good Tan Dun was a public-relations triumph but nearly impossible artistically, played in a moldering, Mao-era hall with a noisy, camera-happy audience. Still, "somebody has to start and build the relationship," Fleur said. And a new concert hall is planned for the city.

Talk of future reengagements tends to be vague. The Chinese are tireless negotiators, and at first one has to be willing to walk away from the table.

"You can't plan for the future until we know there's a solid foundation," said Craig Hamilton, the orchestra's vice president for global initiatives. "In 2012 [the first year of the five-year plan] we didn't commit to coming back in 2013 until we saw how the residency went. We made it clear with all partners that this would be a pilot."

Now those relationships have been built and are evolving.

The 2015 plan is more dispersed. Smaller orchestra groups will go to China throughout the year, while the annual tour slot will focus on Europe. But just as Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts was instrumental in opening doors for the Philadelphia Orchestra in the first few years, Philadelphia will host the center's orchestra in a November Verizon Hall concert. This, and the possibility of presenting Ode to Humanity at a U.S. state occasion, shows how cultural exchange is now going both ways.

Some China watchers are nervous about the country's slowing economy. Not Platt: "I would not 'short' the Chinese. I've been an optimist for 40 years and I've been more right than wrong."

On the Philadelphia side, it's hard to imagine such innovation 10 years ago, before the difficulties of Christoph Eschenbach's tenure, the protracted bankruptcy, and years of uncertainty prior to Nézet-Séguin. Now, says Fleur, "nobody in this organization, top to bottom, takes anything for granted."

Though reaffirming its world-class status under its new music director, the orchestra appears to be doing so without the tinge of arrogance one sensed in years past. No doubt Nézet-Séguin sets the tone: Rather than throwing the customary lavish end-of-tour party, for example, he financed a pricey massage or spa visit for each player. His final command to them all before the second Tokyo concert on Tuesday was, "Have fun!"  

Earlier, as players buzzed in nervous anticipation of U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy's impending backstage visit, the conductor was breezily tearing through a trunk in the hallway, pulling out clothes and scores, and tossing them into his dressing room, muttering "Need. Don't need. Need. Need. Don't need . . . ."

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